Why the US locks up prisoners for life


By Kate DaileyBBC News Magazine

Man behind bars
Life  prison are rare in the UK but common in the US. Why is this punishment so prevalent in the US?

Last week, an English court handed a whole-life sentence to Dale Cregan for murdering four people, including two policewomen.

That penalty means he will never be eligible for release, and it puts him in rare company, making him one of about 50 people in the UK serving such a sentence.

Had he been in the US, he would have been less of an anomaly.

In the US, at least 40,000 people are imprisoned without hope for parole, including 2,500 under the age of 18.

That is just a fraction of those who have been given a life sentence but yet may one day win release. The Sentencing Project, a non-profit organisation that studies sentencing and criminal justice in America, estimated in 2009 that at least 140,000 prisoners in the US now serve a life sentence.

This does not include convicts given extremely long sentences with a fixed term, like the Alabama man sentenced to 200 years for kidnapping and armed robbery.

Most of them will have the opportunity for parole – though Sentencing Project Director Marc Mauer says few will receive it.

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Criminals are always less popular than victims”

Franklin ZimringUniversity of California, Berkeley

David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, says several factors underlie the high number of American convicts imprisoned for life.

“In large part it reflects the overly punitive nature of the American criminal justice system,” says Mauer.

“Not only do we use life sentences much more extensively than other industrial nations, but even in the lower level of event severity, the average burglar or car thief will do more time than they will in Canada or Wales.”

The harsh sentences reveal a type of “sentencing inflation” that began in the 1980s and 1990s.

“It was almost a competition among legislatures of both parties to show how tough they could be on crime,” says Mauer.

At the same time, the sentence is thought to send a message.

“In states like Michigan where they don’t have a death penalty, this is what they have as its moral equivalent,” says Franklin Zimring, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley.

In states that do have the death penalty, long sentences underscore distaste for crimes that do not meet the threshold for capital punishment.

Inmates at Chino State Prison, which houses 5500 inmates, crowd around double and triple bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house 213 prisonersCalifornia’s overcrowded prisons have prisoners sleeping in stacked bedding in the gymnasium

“This is a way of putting a denunciatory exclamation point in the punishment,” he says.

Politicians and other state officials are loathe to be seen as soft on crime, let alone to release an offender on parole only to have him commit another crime.

The 1993 death of Polly Klaas, a young girl killed by a recently paroled man with a long criminal history, led California to pass a “three strikes” rule mandating a sentence of 25 years to life for anyone found guilty of three felonies.

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Life in jail: Safer streets?

Does locking away criminals for life make society safer for everyone else?

“At some level the answer is obviously yes,” says Dan Bernhardt. “There’s no threat to safety if the prisoner is not at risk of re-offending, and a clear benefit if he is.”

But Bernhardt’s research shows that long prison sentences may impede rehabilitation.

“It can be grossly counterproductive,” he says. “It can discourage someone from trying to rehabilitate themselves.”

In the UK, “it is rare but not unheard of for someone on a life license to commit serious offenses,” says David Wilson, who says checks are in place to keep tabs on those who are released.

California lawmakers cite the three strikes policy as the reason for the state’s declining crime rate. But University of California, Riverside sociologist Robert Nash Parker says other factors are responsible, like the national decline in alcohol consumption.

“The drop in crime occurred all over the country, in every state. It dropped at the same time, magnitude, direction,” he says. “It can’t possibly be due to a policy in just one state.”

But now, in both the US and the UK the sentence of life without parole is coming into question.

In England, these sentences arecurrently being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, after a lawsuit brought by three men serving whole life sentences – “a double murderer, a man who wiped out his entire family to inherit money, and a serial killer,” says Wilson.

These men, at least one of whom proclaims his innocence, argue that the denial of a parole option does not allow them to claim they have changed. They further argue that the assignment of these sentences is arbitrary – some convicted killers get them, others do not.

In the US, budget cuts have forced states to reconsider whether the practice of locking criminals up for long periods of time is cost-effective.

“Lawmakers in Illinois have made the decision to shut down a few prisons and let people out early in order to save money,” says Dan Bernhardt, professor of economics at the University of Illinois.

“There’s nothing like state budget problems to get people to see what the costs are.”

In 2012, the US Supreme Court also established that for minors, a sentence of life without parole violates the Constitution’s safeguardsagainst “cruel and unusual” punishment.

The court also ruled that prison overcrowding in California – due in part to severe sentencing and the three strikes programme – violates the same safeguards. It ordered the state to release tens of thousands of prisoners.

But action after these verdicts has been slow, as state officials continue to fight in court.

In the US, once someone has been sent to prison on a life sentence, it’s hard for him or her to get out.

 

US: A nation of inmates? #prison


We examine the impact of America’s high incarceration rate on its penal system and on poor and minority communities.
 Last Modified: 20 Feb 2013 09:52

There are more prisoners in the US than any other nation in the world.

The country makes up five percent of the world’s population, but accounts for 25 percent of its prison population. And over the last three decades the number held in US federal prisons has jumped by nearly 80 percent.

There has been in this country over the last 30 years a relentless upward climb in the incarcerated population and disturbing as the situation is with the federal prison system, that is really only the tip of the iceberg because the federal prison system is only about 10 percent of the total number of people incarcerated in this country. On any given day, we have about 2.3 million people behind bars in federal, state and local facilities.

– David Fathi, ACLU National Prison Project

The number of inmates in US federal prisons has increased from about 25,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2012, according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service.

The report says the federal prison system was 39 percent over its capacity in 2011. And the situation is worse for high and medium security male facilities.

High-security prisons were overcrowded by 51 percent, while medium security prisons were overcrowded by 55 percent in 2011.

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, overcrowding has contributed to worse safety and security conditions for both inmates and staff.

The overcrowded facilities have contributed to a multibillion dollar demand for private prisons. The industry argues it is helping the government save money. But others argue that for-profit prisons only increase the incentive to incarcerate more people.

Almost half of those incarcerated in federal prisons are drug offenders. Another 16 percent of inmates are in prison for offences related to weapons, explosives and arson. Those convicted of immigration violations make up 12 percent of the federal prison population.

Policy makers have come to the realisation, on a state and federal level, that you can’t necessarily build yourself out of a crime situation, that we just can’t continue at these numbers to incarcerate people, and the impact on state budgets and the money spent on a federal level to deal with mass incarceration has just left us in a lot of ways unprotected in other areas.

– Matthew Mangino, a former DA in Pennsylvania

And the impact of mass imprisonment spreads far beyond the prison walls.

Sociologists have found that the rise in incarceration rates reduce social mobility and ensure both prisoners and their families remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.

In the US, minorities make up over 70 percent of the federal prison population.

Demographically, African-Americans – who represent 12 percent of the US population – make up 37 percent of federal prisoners.

And Latinos – who are 16 percent of the population – make up 35 percent of prisoners.

So, what is the impact of the high incarceration rate on the US penal system and on poor communities?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas with presenter Shihab Rattansi is joined by guests: David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project; Matthew Mangino, a former district attorney in Pennsylvania; and Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project, and author of the book Race to Incarcerate.


THE US PRISON INDUSTRY

  • It is increasingly more expensive to maintain the federal prison system
  • Per capita prisoner costs rose from $19,571 in 2000 to $26,094 in 2011
  • Bureau of prisons has backlog of 154 modernisation and repair projects
  • More offences subject to mandatory minimum sentences since the 1980s
  • Mandatory sentences have pushed up inmate numbers for drug offences
  • More crimes have been made federal offences since early 1980s
  • Crime rates in the US have been falling since the early 1990s
  • Sentencing project: prisoners in US declined by about 1.5 percent in 2011
  • Some US states have moved to reduce overcrowding in prisons
  • Supreme court ordered California to reduce prison overcrowding in 2011
  • Budget crises have prompted states to reduce overcrowding in prisons
  • For-profit companies control 18 percent of US federal prisoners
  • For-profit companies control 6.7 percent of all US state prisoners
  • Most new prisons built between 2000 and 2005 are privately run
  • Corrections corporation of America is largest private prison operator

 

#Abraham Lincoln- on Felons Right to vote


By Oct. 25, 2012
Image: The statue of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial
DAVE ETHERIDGE-BARNES / GETTY IMAGESThe statue of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial

Last month at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I had the opportunity to see Abraham Lincoln’s draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, written in his remarkably elegant, almost feminine handwriting. I was surprised by my reaction. I felt a warm flush of gratitude, and even found myself murmuring “Thank you.” The freedom of four million people is no small thing.

(MORECover Story: Lincoln to the Rescue by David von Drehle)

Lincoln not only advocated black freedom, but in the last speech of his life, he voiced support for giving the vote to some freed black men as well as about 200,000 black Civil War veterans, a decision that literally cost him his life. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was in the audience that night and upon hearing Lincoln’s views, turned to his companion and said “that means ni**er citizenship. Now by God, I’ll put him through.” Two days later, Booth murdered the President.

Knowing that, I began to wonder what Lincoln would make of controversial laws denying far too many blacks the right to vote today. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book, The New Jim Crow, more black people are either in prison or jail, or on probation, or parole than were enslaved when the Civil War began. What that means is that in 2004, almost 280,000 black women were denied the vote, even if they had already served theirtime. And if the research that we have from 2010 holds true for today, at least 1.4 million black men will be denied their right to vote on this upcoming election day. Nationwide, almost eight percent of all African Americans—and 13 percent of all black men—will not be able to cast a vote next month. These laws hit blacks disproportionately hard. Although 3.9 million whites also lost the right to vote due to these laws, that figure represents roughly 2 percent of their total population. Overall, these numbers are so troubling that in 2008, a United Nations Committee studies the issue and urged the United States to reform these laws.

(MORETouré: Put To Death for Being Black? New Hope Against Judicial System Bias)

These so called “felony disenfranchisement” policies were first enacted in Southern states beginning in 1870 when the 15th amendment giving black men the right to vote was ratified. The policies were designed to keep blacks from going to the polls, and they continue to do so today. The laws prohibit voting in both state and federal elections and, as was true in the 19th century, are enacted on a state-by-state basis. As a recent report from the Sentencing Project shows, while 9 states impose a lifetime voting ban on convicted felons, in 32 states felons can vote after completing parole and three states have no prohibition and even allow prisoners to vote. A majority of those denied access to voting are in the South: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia and in some of these states, felony convictions have led to staggeringly high percentages of blacks losing their right to vote. For example, this year in Virginia such laws will deny 20 percent of the overall black population the right to vote, and in Florida the number is an even higher 23 percent.

(MOREViewpoint: Will Blacks Vote For Obama Because He’s Black?)

Unlike giving black men the vote in Lincoln’s time, public opinion today largely favors restoring voting rights to felons after they have served their time. In one of the few polls on the issue, University of Minnesota Professor Christopher Uggen conducted a telephone survey involving a random sample of 1000 people. Sixty percent thought voting rights should be restored as soon as an individual left prison and 68% thought we should wait until they had completed parole. But only 31% believed that current prisoners should be allowed to vote, which may be in part because it could be quite easy for prison officials to coerce the votes of those still behind bars.

For those who have completed their sentence however, research shows that when voting rights are restored, they have a much lower chance of becoming repeat offenders, and are more productively integrated back into their communities.

In Lincoln’s day, John Wilkes Booth was far from alone in his views about black people and voting. Following Lincoln’s death, black enfranchisement continued to be hotly and even violently contested throughout the south for the next 100 years, up to and even after the passage of the voting rights act in 1965. But considering that today enfranchisement for former felons enjoys widespread public support, we need only turn that support into political will and then action. We know what Lincoln would do. The question is, are we willing to follow his example?

 @nrookie

Rooks is an associate professor at Cornell University. The views expressed are solely her own.

Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/25/what-would-lincoln-think-about-laws-denying-felons-the-right-to-vote/#ixzz2ANpVH7AP

 

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